Sermon by Rev. Joel Crouse
Today, we are called to consider the wonderfully instructional parable of the Good Samaritan. In the gospel, a lawyer poses a question to Jesus: he seeks a guide for getting to heaven. “Love God, and love your neighbor,” Jesus tells him. To which the lawyer replies, “Define the word ‘neighbor’ for me.”
And so Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. A man is lying injured in a ditch, after being robbed. A priest walks by, sees him, and crosses to the other side. A Levite does the same. Finally, it is the Samaritan, the outcast, who stops and offers aid. The Good Samaritan doesn’t only help the injured man to safety, but he pays, out of his own pocket, for his care. “Which of these was the neighbor to the man?” Jesus asks the lawyer. The answer is obvious: the stranger who showed mercy.
This parable always reminds me of an old experiment that was conducted with seminarians. I found the actual paper this week, published by two Princeton professors in 1972. It was a fascinating read. I had not realized before how closely the professors sought to duplicate the parable as a real-world test. They recreated the victim as he appeared in the gospel – slumped in a ditch, “somewhat ambiguous,” possibly injured, but also possibly drunk and potentially dangerous. They placed the victim on the path, so that the study’s participants were travelling from one place to another like our trio in the gospel.
And then they primed the seminarians. The researchers noted in their paper that Jesus seemed rather disdainful of the current religious leaders, that they were in it for themselves, so to speak, fussing more about rules than good works. So they gave the study participants a task: to give a speech, in a nearby building. For some of them, the speech was on their religious vocation – so they would be thinking about God. Others were specifically given the parable of the Good Samaritan as the topic of their speech. Still others were told they were late for their speech and had to hurry.
This is what happened – maybe you can already guess. Of the participants, the researchers found 40 per cent helped the slumped over person; 60 per cent did not. Of those, a sizable portion appeared not even to see him. The rest appeared agitated – as if they saw him but didn’t feel they could stop and help. It turned out that having just been read The Good Samaritan parable did not actually make a significant difference in whether or not people helped. What made the most difference was being in a hurry. One percent of the group in the most hurried category stopped to help. “Why?” the researchers asked. Given the agitation they felt about not helping, the researchers proposed it was “conflict rather than callousness” that was the factor. The participants were so worried about being late that they prioritized that over helping.
The reason why I think this experiment is so instructional is that we all want to be the Good Samaritan in the parable – and we easily disdain the first two, who see the man and turn away. But what if they were in a hurry? What if the priest had a sick person waiting for his ministry? Or maybe the Levite needed to get his child at daycare? Does that then justify their walking on? Maybe the Samaritan just wasn’t in a rush; he had time to help and so he did.
Perhaps it is more complicated – perhaps the priest didn’t want to get his hands dirty, and the Samaritan was a helpful guy. But the results of the experiment should speak to us: if hurry was the reason, then might it not be the same for us? We are a culture in a perpetual hurry; one that celebrates working long hours, having a full calendar, putting our kids in lots of activities. What opportunities to help are we missing because of these busy schedules? What might we see around us if we would just slow down?
I think it is perhaps not that simple. To see the world in slower motion, we must practice slowing down. A mindful person doesn’t miss what lies before them, does not step over the person in need.
But let’s not forget the nature of the Good Samarian’s assistance. He did not just pause and help the man out of the ditch. He stopped in his life and helped to his fullest extent – what’s more, he came back the next day to check on the victim. Whether he was in a hurry or not, he interrupted his life for a long period of time. And because he had no connection to the man, and indeed was considered a foreigner, he was unlikely to reap any benefit.
The Good Samaritan then worried not about human rules – the constraints of time, the demands of getting too involved, the rules that he might be breaking – he found a need and he responded.
In their paper, the two Princeton Professors quote a line from New Testament scholar Robert Funk: “The Samaritan does not love with side glances at God.” Rather, he loves the way God does – straight head, and all around, looking to go where he is most needed. Amen